In matrilineal societies, women had more status, power, and property than men. Most scholars of Islam believed that matrilineal cultures were against the ethos of the religion, which is patrilineal, patrilocal, and patriarchal. But millions of Muslims across the Indian Ocean littoral have been following matriliny for several centuries. It was also one of the most convenient ways to engage in Indian Ocean trade: men could voyage as merchants, sailors, and itinerants, while women stayed on land with the property and controlled households and wider social spheres. This economic and social stability gave women an upper hand in economic and personal choices, and within marriages, they could and did move about freely. The matrilineal system not only connected maritime Muslims but also raised serious questions about the Islamic jurisprudential tradition that evolved in the Middle East through its peculiar practices of ownership of property, kinship, and marital norms. From the late eighteenth century onward, the system has been subjected to significant internal and external criticisms. These especially targeted inheritance-related customs where men got no share in the property. With a special focus on debates over inheritance laws, this article explores the transregional and transtemporal ways in which matrilineal Muslims defended the system within Islamic legal epistemologies and maritime social systems.

You do not currently have access to this content.